Imagine this: Eager to capitalize on the appeal of one-on-one
basketball, the NBA stages mano-a-mano competitions before and
after every regular-season game. The court dimensions change
slightly, and there are a few quirky new rules, but it's wildly
entertaining basketball. Sure, Shaq and LeBron, wary of risking
injury, seldom play. But this event features many familiar
players as well as other ballers whose skills are especially
suited to this cognate game. Better still, the one-on-one duels
are included with the price of admission. Total bonanza, right?

Here's the funny thing: Such an ancillary competition exists in
tennis, yet it's treated as an unsightly blemish. Doubles, they
call it. Just last week at the Australian Open, the top teams
were routinely assigned to play in the hinterlands of Melbourne
Park. Second-seeded Mahesh Bhupathi and Max Mirnyi played on
court 21, a Sherpa's trek from the main venues. They won a
gripping three-setter, but their audience comprised all of a few
dozen fans.

Once, success in doubles was the mark of a complete tennis
player. The sport's brightest lights entered both the singles and
doubles draws, and doubles specialists enjoyed quasi-celebrity
status. Today, doubles is all toil and trouble. "It's tough,"
says Todd Woodbridge, who on Jan. 17 set the record for career
doubles titles with 79. "You're not always made to feel so

It's hard to make much sense of this. Doubles is the preferred
game of most recreational tennis players. Plus, it's the answer
to most of the standard critiques of contemporary tennis. You
mourn the decline of the serve-and-volley game? Most doubles
players head netward every chance they get. Turned off by players
mindlessly bludgeoning the ball? The average doubles point is
double-stuffed with wickedly sharp angles, deftly placed lobs and
clever tactics.

Doubles is stuck in, to use a tennis term, no-man's land. There
is hope, however, for a renaissance. The return of 47-year-old
Martina Navratilova has raised the profile of doubles on the WTA
tour. Identical twins Bob and Mike Bryan are the top team in the
men's game. These double-gangers are personable Californians with
movie-star good looks and, of course, a built-in story line. Many
tournament directors are finally scheduling the doubles finals
immediately before the singles finals, which provides a better
showcase. Maybe doubles will again get its due as the bonus--not
the onus--that it is.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTINWoodbridge (left, with partner Jonas Bjorkman) is a singulardoubles player.